Pro-Milosevic leaders defy Kostunica

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The Independent Online

Serbian government proteges of Slobodan Milosevic have defied attempts by pro-democracy forces to end their authority.

Serbian government proteges of Slobodan Milosevic have defied attempts by pro-democracy forces to end their authority.

In a shock move, they announced they were reimposing control over police and resisting attempts to cleanse the top military leadership.

Following the recent resignation of Serbia's interior minister, a senior member of Milosevic's Socialist party, Branislav Ivkovic, said Serbia's pro-Milosevic prime minister Mirko Marjanovic was taking direct control of the 100,000-strong police force in Serbia.

Serbia is the dominant Yugoslav republic, where more than 90 percent of Yugoslavs live. Whoever controls Serbia, effectively controls Yugoslavia.

Marjanovic and other members of Serbia's pro-Milosevic government have been resisting efforts from those supporting newly elected Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica to leave positions of authority.

Kostunica is president of Yugoslavia, made up both of Serbia and much smaller Montenegro.

In a further defiant note, Ivkovic effectively said Kostunica's people lack authority to make decisions affecting Serbia.

He said decisions of "legal bodies" on the Serbian - not Yugoslav - level will be respected.

In a further rebuff to Kostunica, senior generals have warned against the "negative consequences" of moves to purge top military echelons appointed by Milosevic.

After meeting with Kostunica, the army issued a statement cautioning against the "possible negative consequences of increased attacks and attempts to discredit certain individual of the Yugoslav army."

The developments signaled a serious setback to attempts by the pro-democracy forcers around Kostunica to impose full authority over key levels of power in Yugoslavia.

"This government ... is the only power to bring about legal decisions," Ivkovic said.

Earlier, the Serbian parliament agreed to early elections in December, instead of 2001, when the term of the present government would normally have ended.

The Serbian president's term ends in 2002. Ivkovic again said talks with Kostunica's people would resume only after the end of "illegal actions and violence" against the citizens of Serbia - shorthand for the growing takeovers of state companies and institutions by the pro-democracy camp.

Before he had begun meeting with the army, a key Kostunica aide, said that the president wants to replace the current army chief with a former general sacked by Milosevic.

Zoran Djindjic, who is leading efforts to form a new government, said his team wanted Momcilo Perisic to lead the Yugoslav military in an effort to ensure army loyalty amid resistance by Milosevic's allies to push them from power. Ahead of the army rebuff, Djindjic had been optimistic.

"We can expect not only the resignation of the present chief of general staff Nebojsa Pavkovic, but also a wind of fresh air throughout the top ranks," Djindjic said.

Yesterday Kostunica said the police were already on the side of the government and that "the army will have to be consolidated."

It was unclear, however, whether Kostunica's claim was valid.

Late yesterday about 20 uniformed policemen detained three bodyguards of the pro-democracy leaders, according to the group's spokesman, Cedomir Jovanovic. Jovanovic said the three were released after a few hours. He called the action a "provocation" by police still loyal to Milosevic.

Kostunica, who took office Saturday, is seeking to rid the entire political establishment of the last remnants of Milosevic's regime.

Resistance by the army and the Serbian government cast a pall on other signs of success - many lesser figures from the Milosevic era were giving up, some of them reportedly fleeing the country. Several officials of state companies resigned.

Today, the independent trade union, Nezavisnost, sacked the entire pro-Milosevic management of the country's largest metal mine and smelter complex in the eastern Serbian region of Bor, close to the Romanian border.

The Milosevic appointees were replaced by independent experts close to Kostunica. Bor is also the source of Serbia's largest supplies of gold and copper.

The head of the Federal Electoral Commission, Borivoje Vukicevic, resigned his federal judgeship, the private Beta news agency reported. The commission sought to deny Kostunica victory in last month's election and called a run-off with Milosevic which never took place.

The announcement about Serbian attempts to resume control of the police force came after media reports that four Serbian police generals assigned to the dreaded State Security service had declared their allegiance to Kostunica.

Belgrade media also reported that the commander of police who defended the Yugoslav parliament building during Thursday's popular assault, Colonel Ljuban Loncarevic, had resigned.

As the pro-democracy movement faced continued resistance to its authority, the United States and the European Union have been rushing to give their support to Kostunica, offering Yugoslavia a chance to end the years of international isolation imposed during the Balkan wars of the past decade.

US diplomat William Dale Montgomery arrived in Belgrade today, in the first official visit here since relations were severed during NATO bombing last year.

Montgomery, who heads a Hungary-based US office for support of democracy in Yugoslavia, is to prepare for the visit tomorrow of James C O'Brien, the senior US official overseeing Balkans developments. O'Brien is to meet Kostunica.

The United States is expected to quickly reopen its Belgrade embassy and re-establish formal diplomatic relations after the change of government here in a popular uprising last week.

Since the NATO bombing, the US embassy and a cultural center remained demolished and sprayed with anti-American graffiti, a reflection of sentiments still running high here despite the pro-democracy changes.

"Our relationship was always wonderful with the Serbian people, and that relationship started to go downhill immediately when Milosevic came to power," Montgomery said.

"That time is over so I have high hopes that relationship can get back to normal."

Europe's chief Balkan aid official, Bodo Hombach, has also arrived for a meeting with Kostunica.